Ganas: Free Love, Hate and an Ambush at a Commune on Staten Island

A few rules exist at Ganas, a collection of 100 souls who live on Staten Island in what may be New York City’s only commune.

Shared meals and wife-swapping are O.K.

Freeloading, violence and pointless negativity are not.

Rebekah Johnson, a former Ganas member, had violated all three prohibitions even before she was suspected of gunning down and seriously injuring one of the group’s founders on Monday night, residents say. In 1989, she quit working at the commune-run thrift store, stopped contributing to the group’s joint finances and began spreading prodigious amounts of negativity.

“She was just causing trouble everywhere,” said Jeff Gross, the primary recipient of Ms. Johnson’s negativity, speaking from a hospital bed where he is recovering from three bullet wounds that the police say came from Ms. Johnson’s .380-caliber handgun. “The commune asked her to leave. We thought that was the end of story.”

It was, in fact, only the prologue.

Ms. Johnson, 43, waged a 10-year war against the commune before, the police say, she ambushed Mr. Gross in front of his home, firing four shots and disappearing into the night.

Ganas members, local residents and law enforcement officials said that her complaints included accusations that Mr. Gross had raped female residents, forced some to marry illegal immigrants and brainwashed others into blind obedience.

In a $3 million lawsuit she filed in 1999 against Mr. Gross and Ganas, Ms. Johnson claimed she had been tossed out for complaining about the promiscuity and the risk of sexually transmitted pathogens. The police investigated her rape allegations, found no merit in them, and the suit was dropped.

With Ms. Johnson at large and Mr. Gross recovering from his wounds at a Staten Island hospital, residents of the pacifist urban collective are reeling from the kind of fear and violence they had sought to escape.

“We’re nervous,” said Melissa Van, 28, speaking in front of a house on Corson Avenue that is connected by a meandering boardwalk to nine other communal homes. “I mean, who knows? No one thought Jeff would get shot.”

The bloodshed has brought unwanted attention to a group of people who have long struggled to show outsiders that they are a civic-minded, environmentally friendly collective of lawyers, doctors, teachers and real estate brokers, not some zany cult of vestigial hippies living on the fringes of the city.

“I understand from the outside that it’s a very unusual way to live but it leads to people sensationalizing us,” said Jenny, 38, who runs an H.I.V. program at New York-Presbyterian Hospital and asked that her last name not be printed. “I don’t live a particularly alternative life.”

Founded three decades ago by six people who are still at its core, Ganas adheres to an intense brand of communication they call feedback learning. Although participation is not compulsory, about a third of the residents show up for the breakfast and dinnertime sessions during which residents talk about commune business, workplace problems and personal matters that sometimes include the unintended consequences of the romantic fluidity that is encouraged.

There are just a handful of children at the commune and most couples say they would rather devote themselves to self-improvement than procreation.

Jenny, for one, pays a mere $700 for a two-room apartment that offers harbor views and a glimpse of the Manhattan skyline. Her rent, she says, includes phone, utilities and all the food she can eat, prepared by the commune’s full-time cook.

Doors stay unlocked and groceries are unloaded from the commune-owned van via bucket brigade. “It’s really a relaxed supportive environment and the people are friendly and engaging,” Jenny said. “It’s not like some utopia, but everyone gets along.”

Well, nearly everyone.

Some who knew Ms. Johnson say she was troubled from the beginning. Others said her ire might have been fueled by an unrequited passion for Mr. Gross, 52, who is married to another member of the group. “She obviously was not operating under normal rational thought,” Ms. Van said.

Ms. Johnson, a native of Virginia, first connected with Ganas at a communal living conference in Canada in 1986, Mr. Gross said. It was before the group had a formal screening process, and Ms. Johnson, impressed by the people she met, simply hitched a ride back to Staten Island and moved in. She had no job, no money and seemed a bit lost. “We thought we could help anyone,” Mr. Gross said.

Ms. Johnson worked at one of the commune’s three thrift stores on Staten Island, but the good will didn’t last. By 1989, Mr. Gross said, she was asked to leave. In 1994, she asked for a second chance. In the end, things got so bad, the group had to call a marshal to have her evicted. She moved to a nearby housing project on Bay Street, where neighbors said she kept to herself, her only companionship a cat and a computer. “She never had one friend visit her in all the time she was here,” said a neighbor, Darren Burton. “She totally kept to herself. She barely had any furniture.”

Two years ago, she renewed her highly public campaign against Mr. Gross. This time, members say, she seemed more disheveled, and more enraged. She accosted him at street fairs and stalked him as he jogged, snapping his picture at point-blank range, prosecutors said.

One day, Mr. Gross awoke to find his car vandalized. Another morning, daylight revealed the words “Jeff Gross = Rapist and Pimp” spray-painted across a retaining wall on Corson Avenue, the leafy working-class block in Tompkinsville where most of the group’s homes are located.

Mr. Gross took out an order of protection. Ms. Johnson was arrested. And the Staten Island district attorney prosecuted her on harassment charges. For reasons that are unclear, the case was later dismissed.

The last time the two met was in October, at a waterfront festival that Mr. Gross organizes every year. The police escorted Ms. Johnson away and the fliers she had been distributing as part of her campaign suddenly stopped. Mr. Gross thought the trouble had finally subsided.

“Apparently she had something else cooked up,” he said. Then, turning wistful, his thoughts turned to the community he had helped create, one that had nearly taken his life. “It was a social experiment,” he said, “and here I am 30 years later with all these bullets in me.”

Nate Schweber contributed reporting for this article.


(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
The New York Times, USA
June 1, 2006
Andrew Jacobs and Sarah Garland
, , ,

Religion News Blog posted this on Thursday June 1, 2006.
Last updated if a date shows here:


More About This Subject


Our website includes affiliate links, which means we get a small commission -- at no additional cost to you -- for each qualifying purpose. For instance, as an Amazon Associate, Religion News Blog earns from qualifying purchases. That is one reason why we can provide this research service free of charge.

Speaking of which: One way in which you can support us — at no additional cost to you — is by shopping at